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How to Watch NHL Games

A Beginners Guide to the Coolest Game on Earth

The NHL has been around for over 101 years. A lot has changed over the years! Back in 1917, when the NHL started, there were only four teams in the league. It wasn't very popular, and they were all Canadian teams. Oddly enough, one team has survived from that inaugural season: the Montreal Canadiens.

Today, the NHL has 31 teams, and there's even talk of a 32nd team joining the league in 2020. With that many teams, it's likely that there is an NHL team near you. If you're anything like me, you love a good sports event. But, because ice hockey is such a fast game, it may be difficult to follow the play. Have no fear, my friend, I'm here to break it down for you.

All hockey games start with what's called a face-off. The two opposing centers meet at center ice and the referee drops the puck. In the NHL, there are two referees who call penalties, and two line judges who look for icing and offsides. (More about the rules later!)

The object of the hockey game is to score more goals than your opponent,  but because the game moves SO fast, it's difficult to follow along. Consider this as your guide to better understanding the game and enjoying the excitement.

Hockey players can serve in one of six positions on the ice. 

Centers play in the middle of the rink and take most of the face-offs, but not always. Centers also help out on defense when the opposing team has the puck in their zone.

Left Wings and Right Wings are the scoring forwards. They usually skate in between the face-off dots and the boards. Their job is to score by skating past or around the defense and put the puck in the net.

Left and Right Defenseman play the role of stopping the Wings and the Center from scoring. Their job is to block shots and keep forwards from getting too close to the goaltender, and they can get rather feisty about it! They're also the most physical of  hockey players, since their job is to keep the puck out of their area and get it to their team's forwards.

Goaltenders are the last line of defense for a hockey team. It's not an easy job! But they get a lot of the credit if they play great and the team wins. They have a glove that allows them to catch the puck—or scoop it up to stop the play and force a face-off. They also have a blocker that allows them to deflect pucks away from the net. Think of it like a shield. Finally, goalies have a wider stick to help block shots. The hockey goalie is one of the most difficult positions to play in sports, but many have made it look easy.

The rules of the game are simple. The puck must cross the blue line before a player for them to be considered on-side. If an opposing player goes past the blue line before the puck does, the linesman blows his whistle and calls the play off-site. The result is a face-off outside the blue line.

Teams can also be called for icing the puck if they shoot the puck more than half the distance of the ice without anyone touching it. Until recently, players could race each other to the end boards to "touch up," and either beat out the icing call or claim the icing call for a face-off in the other end of the ice. Today, that race ends at the nearest face-off circle inside the blue line. This rule was changed to prevent players from getting hurt or injured. (Many of them did.) There are two exceptions to the icing rule— one is when there is a penalty. The team with a player serving a penalty can ice the puck. The other exception is when a goalie plays the iced puck. Icing is then waived off.

Players can be called for a variety of penalties. The most common ones are called "minor penalties" for tripping, holding, high sticking, and interference (like stopping a player from getting to the puck). If a player is called for one these types of penalties, he serves two minutes in the penalty box. The team can only skate four players (plus their goalie), while the other team gets to have all five skaters on the ice. This is called a Power Play. Players can also get a "double minor" for four minutes if the penalty is more severe or results in causing the other player to bleed. More severe penalties are called "major penalties" and are for five minutes. Major penalties are called for fighting or boarding—when a player jumps into another player along the boards. Since major penalties often coincide with two players from opposing teams, it usually does not result in a power play. Rarely, players can also receive more severe penalties like a 10 minute misconduct or even a game misconduct and an ejection from the game. These penalties do not allow for the other team to have a power play, but that team is short a player for the remainder of the game.

On rare occasions, if a player is pulled down from behind while skating in alone on the goaltender, the defending player can get called for a penalty that result in a penalty shot. In this case, the puck is placed at the center ice face-off dot and the player is allowed to have a one-on-one shot against the goalie. If the player scores, it's a goal. If the goalie makes the save, the play is whistled to a stop. A face-off inside the offending team's blue line is next.

Scoring a goal seems simple, but not always. In order for it to be a good goal, the entire puck must cross the red goal line. If only part it crosses the line, it's not a goal. Referees now have the ability to do a video replay review of questionable goals, and coaches can challenge in certain situations. Some players and fans don't like it, but it's here to stay.

If the game ends in a tie score, the game goes to a five minute overtime. Teams play three-on-three skaters. The NHL decided to do this to create more scoring chances. Penalties from the end of the third period do carry over, with the team on the power play getting an extra skater. If neither team scores during the overtime period, the game goes to a shootout. Coaches from each team select three players to take penalty shots on opposing goaltenders. If the game is still tied after three rounds, the game goes until someone scores and the other team misses. Some shootouts have gone to 15 rounds!

It's an amazing game! The hits are harder than football, the puck goes faster than a baseball, and it takes place on a frozen sheet of ice.

For more information about the NHL, visit www.nhl.com

Chris Smalley
Chris Smalley

Chris is a husband, father, and a huge hockey nut. Since he was 11, when he witnessed the "Miracle on Ice", the game of hockey runs deep in his veins. He also loves to cook, bake, and watch Star Wars movies. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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